A FEW MONTHS AGO, I decided to join a neighborhood golf club. Although I started playing when I was a teenager, I’ve never been that good. Since the group invited players of all handicaps, I thought it would be a fun way to get some exercise and meet new people.
I realized on the first day that I was probably the youngest player. Despite my rustiness, I was putting for birdies on both of the first two holes. I told my playing partners that was highly abnormal. At the end of the day, my 88-year-old playing partner—who is the oldest in the league—beat me by 10 shots. The next week, he beat me by 20. After another playing partner “complimented” me by saying, “I would rather play with a nice golfer than a good golfer,” I decided it was time to take lessons for the first time in 25 years.
After watching me hit four or five shots, the pro told me I was standing over the ball the wrong way. He adjusted my feet. The ball started flying straighter. It seems I’d been playing the game for 50 years, occasionally with some success, and yet didn’t know how to stand correctly. Later in the lesson, he showed me how I was swinging with my arms and not my body. Despite feeling really weird when I swung the club the “right way,” the ball started going farther. On the rare instances when I stood correctly and swung correctly, someone watching me might have thought I actually knew how to play.
I finished my three lessons last week. The pro complimented me on my progress, and I felt pretty good. When the pro was at my side and pointed out what I did wrong and right, I hit the ball really well. Going out to play on the course did not lead to quite the same results.
Maybe that’s because I don’t do the drills and exercises as much as I’m supposed to. Maybe it’s because three 45-minute lessons can’t compete with 50 years of mediocrity and mistakes. Maybe it’s because learning takes longer than I’d like. Probably all three. Still, along the way, I’ve been learning and relearning things that will help my golf game and hopefully my life—including these three lessons.
1. Old dogs can learn new tricks. One of the challenges many of us face as we get older is that we don’t think we need—or are able—to learn new things. Sometimes our success and station in life convince us we don’t need help. Sometimes we’re too embarrassed or afraid to become a student again.
I often turn to the Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind to remember how to meditate—and to live. He writes, “The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” This is true in golf, meditation and virtually everything in life.
2. Ask for help. This may seem to be the same as No. 1—but not really. I know people who constantly read books and search the internet for wisdom and ideas on everything from investing to cooking to golf. We’re fortunate to live during a time when we can do so. But many of those people would never dream of asking someone, whether it be a coach, an expert or another living human being, to give them advice.
Sometimes we’re too cheap, sometimes we think we can do it ourselves and sometimes we just don’t like to ask. I know, because sometimes I’m one of those people. As someone who occasionally coaches and consults, I know how difficult it can be to ask for and then follow someone’s advice. I have a friend who’s taking golf lessons via YouTube videos. It might work. But I prefer a more personalized approach.
3. Don’t be your results. I learned this lesson when I was in my early 20s and started in sales. When I became a sales manager, a coach I worked with asked me how things were going. My team wasn’t doing too hot that month and I wasn’t doing too hot, either. After a few minutes, she said, “Ah, you’re being your results.”
I had no idea what she was saying. But she reminded me that a common trait of salespeople is they become their results. When the numbers are good, they feel good and their life is okay. When the numbers are bad, their life is bad, too. I’ve since learned salespeople aren’t the only ones who suffer from being their results.
I would be my results at times when I became a minister and Sunday attendance rose or declined. I sometimes do it now when my retirement portfolio goes up or down. I’ve been doing it lately on the golf course when my score doesn’t reflect the artistic beauty of my new golf swing.
We often forget that we’re human beings and not human doings. We sometimes do the “right” things and the consequences aren’t what we’d hoped for. We forget that the being is often more important than the doing. We aren’t making enough money fast enough, so we take on too much risk. We have a dry spell as a salesperson, so we start fibbing a bit to our customers in the hopes it’ll help close the sale. We hit the ball in the water, decide we know more than the golf pro and go back to our old swing. And we, and those we love, suffer.
I know I’ll never become a great golfer or the richest man in the world. But if I keep learning, asking for help and focusing on doing the right things, I suspect my golf score—and other parts of my life—will continue to improve. And if you happen to see a 63-year-old dancing around an 88-year-old on the 18th hole, cut me a little slack.
Don Southworth is a semi-retired minister, consultant and tax preparer living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He recently completed his Certified Financial Planner education. Don is passionate about the intersection between spirituality and money, and he encourages people to follow their callings wherever they lead. Follow Don on Twitter @Calltrepreneur. His previous articles were Magic Number, Answering the Call and Twin Certainties.